US Navy carrier Ford to go on unusual deployment this year

The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford departs Naval Station Norfolk to transit to Newport News Shipyard in support of its planned incremental availability, a six-month period of modernization, maintenance and repairs, on Aug. 20, 2021. (MC1 William Spears/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has promised a first deployment for its new aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford by this fall — but that deployment won’t be a typical one, the head of Naval Air Force Atlantic told Defense News.

Ford won’t fall under the operational command of a regional combatant commander. Rather, it will conduct a “service-retained early employment” period where the Navy keeps full control over the ship’s activities and schedule, Rear Adm. John Meier said.

The carrier and its strike group will operate on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean alongside a long list of foreign navies, he said. But the operations will be outside the typical Global Force Management-dictated deployment in support of the joint force.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to demonstrate the new technology,” he said during a panel presentation at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ Technology, Systems and Ships Symposium. “We will be working with partners, we will be working all over the place as 2nd Fleet takes charge of that carrier and operates with a wide variety of operations, up and down the coast, across the Atlantic, down to the Caribbean.”

Meier told Defense News after the panel that this represented the best way to make use of Ford as it comes out of its first planned incremental availability in 2022, ahead of when the long-range Global Force Management plans begin to incorporate the new carrier. GFM is an approach meant to help oversee the allocation of forces.

Ford was previously on track for a 2024 maiden deployment, after its original 2018 timeline was repeatedly pushed back due to delays in developing and testing the new technologies meant to make Ford more efficient than the older Nimitz-class carriers. The Navy conducted a significant amount of modernization and installation work while the ship was at sea to accelerate the remaining schedule, after years of schedule slips, and to be able to put the ship to sea for operations in 2022.

Under the new plan Meier laid out, the first GFM deployment could take place, roughly, on that 2024 timeline, meaning the Navy would squeeze in an operational employment of the carrier in 2022 without throwing off the joint force plan that dictates ships’ maintenance, training and deployment schedules.

Meier told Defense News the new carrier already has about 8,200 catapult launches and arrested landings — or cats and traps — from the extensive time the ship spent at sea in 2020 and 2021 for air wing integration, trials, new pilot carrier qualifications and more. Still, Meier said, the Navy has been unable to fully operate a carrier air wing the way it wants to: doing cyclical operations, with jet wings loaded up with missiles for mission training.

“We see this as just a superb opportunity to really do what I would describe as an operational groom. It’s going to be an employment. So work-up phase will be a little bit condensed. The air wing will be a robust, fully capable air wing, but smaller than an operational carrier air wing, and that’s a balance of cost and apportionment of resources. But that air wing is going to be more potent than any other air wing on any other ship in the world as it is,” Meier said.

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